Theorizing Modernities article

Prophecy without Contempt: Symposium Introduction

Prophecy Without Contempt Book Symposium
“The American public square is not a seminar room” (419). So argues Cathleen Kaveny in her brilliant new book Prophecy without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Square (Harvard University Press, 2016). Rather than conceptualizing the public sphere through its relationship to an “ideal speech situation,” as critical theorist Jürgen Habermas theorized, Kaveny hews close to the actual modes of exchange that populate political discourse. In doing so, Kaveny argues we need to give less attention to the dynamics of deliberation, and more to the rhetoric of prophetic indictment. In the following introduction to this Contending Modernities book symposium, I briefly present Kaveny’s book and situate the four responses from M. Christian Green, Gustavo Maya, Jason Springs, and Vincent Lloyd in relation to the ongoing analysis of Contending Modernities.

Kaveny’s argument for a greater attention to the rhetoric of prophetic speech is divided into four parts. In the first part she sets the stage for her argument by surveying three prominent accounts of the public sphere from Alasdair MacIntyre, John Rawls, and Stephen Carter. She has particular critiques for each account—MacIntyre cannot account adequately for the internal plurality of religious traditions, Rawls’s restriction of allowed reasons fails to meet his own criterion of civic respect, and Carter misunderstands the particularistic origins of the call for civility—yet each of these critiques are drafted into her wider argument that none of them pay sufficient heed to the rhetorical dimensions of public speech.

Remedying this lack, Kaveny’s second part performs a historical retrieval of the American jeremiad. Kaveny argues that the jeremiad initially served to call its hearers back to a common covenant, but came to be used divisively by later generations. For Kaveny, prophetic rhetoric is forensic: it identifies wrongdoing according to a commonly accepted standard. When this common standard comes into question, prophetic indictment cannot be properly deployed. Some readers will suspect a MacIntyrian declension narrative at work here: while the jeremiad operated rightly within the cohesive early Puritan communities, it fails as it is deployed within more complex and less homogenous socio-political contexts. Yet, Kaveny is less concerned with a return to origins than the possibility of prophetic speech within a pluralistic public square.

The third and fourth parts, then, take up this challenge. In the third part, Kaveny executes a rhetorical analysis of the relationship between deliberation and indictment through a detailed exposition of debates regarding abortion and torture in the 2004 American presidential campaign. This careful empirical work sets up the final part, in which Kaveny offers a constructive ethic of prophetic rhetoric. Conceptualizing prophecy as a form of verbal “chemotherapy,” Kaveny argues that it should be used with great judiciousness. Like an oncologist knows: too little will kill the patient by lack of treatment, too much will kill the patient by fatal toxicity. Thus, prophetic indictment should be used with care as a necessary part of our public engagement.

Kaveny has done a great service for those of us interested in understanding the dynamics of political, moral and religious contention at work in late modernity. She advances the scholarly conversation in a number of ways that are pertinent for Contending Modernities, which is no surprise given her important role in the early stages of the project. This symposium aims to emphasize several of those advances and invite further examination.

M. Christian Green’s essay wonders about the role of lament in prophetic discourse. Particularly in a time where religious actors worry (rightly or wrongly) about a purported displacement of religious speech, Green argues that the dynamics of lament, an important element of the Hebraic sources of prophetic speech, deserve further attention. Gustavo Maya and Jason Springs both ask Kaveny to further clarify the relationship between prophetic indictment and moral deliberation. Maya asks whether the call to return to a common covenant, basic to Kaveny’s historical retrieval, is viable in our pluralistic present. We might ask, additionally, whether pluralism itself can operate as a substantive value, and if so what prophetic speech might look like in such a context. Springs, meanwhile, pushes Kaveny to consider the reasons of prophecy, drawing upon Abraham Joshua Heschel to argue that prophecy need not be reduced to indictment alone, but entails both a range of activities and the practical wisdom to know when to deploy each. Finally, Vincent Lloyd takes Kaveny’s turn to the actual experience of the public square and intensifies it by reflecting on our common experience of watching public rhetoric. Lloyd thus invites Kaveny to consider what it might look like for scholars to consider the much more common and mundane act of watching as a fundamental activity of the public square.

Together, these essays celebrate the power of Kaveny’s work by taking her challenge to attend to the actual contours of religious and secular discourse in the public square, all with a normative aim. Kaveny’s book resets the terms of debate, focusing our attention on the moral dynamics of public rhetoric. Kaveny sets a new standard for treatment of the public square, one that deserves sustained scholarly and popular engagement.

Kyle Lambelet
Kyle Lambelet is a PhD candidate at the University Notre Dame in Ethics and Peace Studies and a Research Associate with Contending Modernities. His research focuses on the intersections of religion, ethics, conflict, and peace with particular attention to the ethics of nonviolence.